The metamorphosis of the OLPC programme

This week’s report of Rwandan government’s partnership with Microsoft to roll out digital education has re-energised the debate by local and international observers on the progress of technology-enabled learning in the country.

Only two years ago, the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee was raising concerns of poor management that seemed to stymie the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) programme.

The concerns had been reported by the Auditor General, citing operational challenges to the programme. The roll-out pace was too slow, threatening attainment of one of the programme’s main objectives, which was to have at least 500,000 laptops in schools by this year (2017).

But, apparently unbeknown to the Auditor General, there had been a change of tack. The viability of a laptop in each pupil’s hand was already in question, with the possible launch of the “two smart-classes concept” already under discussion.

As the then Minister for Education explained to the Public Accounts Committee, “this is because it is affordable compared to One Laptop per Child, it is easy to manage and we think it can reach each child very fast through classroom setup.”

It was the first time the Government was letting known the OLPC programme metamorphosis. (See, “Government to revamp One Laptop per Child programme”, The New Times, March 19, 2015).

It was also around this time the Government was moving to partner with Postivo-BGH to assemble electronic devices in Rwanda, including desktops, laptops and tablets.

This would not only ease the challenge of spare parts then dogging the OLPC programme, but greatly enhance on-hand presence of technical support. But it was all part of a grand scheme.

That same year (2015), the government adopted the Smart Rwanda Master Plan 2015–2020, drawing from the National Information and Communication Infrastructure Policy and the ICT Sector Strategic Plan.

It is apparent, therefore, against this background the Government-Microsoft-Postivo partnership takes shape, if to more realistically actualise the ICT in Education Policy that includes expanding the ICT infrastructure to improve access and equity. The policy also anticipates developing capacity to integrate ICT in education practice, developing quality digital content and establishing open and distance e-Learning.

It is comparable to technology-enabled learning projects already being undertaken elsewhere in the EAC, especially Kenya.

In truth, however, as lessons from similar OLPC programmes over the years in Latin America – Peru and Uruguay – as well as the United States are conclusive that computers and broadband Internet do not necessarily increase test scores, or bring transformative change in pupils.

Studies show that technology-enabled learning is more usefully unleashed within a broad institutional environment, such as in what is termed “blended learning”, that should ideally include the pupil’s family and teacher, in addition to the classroom and the student’s peers.

As previously observed in this column, blended learning is a mix of teacher and student face-to-face instruction, where learning, at least in part, is through delivery of content and instruction via digital and online media with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace. (See, “Beware of the changing teaching landscape”, The New Times, August 08, 2015).

While it may include digital teacher-parent communication, sharing lesson plans to allow parental support at home, digital learning is supplemented by face-to-face instruction with teachers. In this model, students advance in their grades at their own pace.

Granted, not many parents in Rwanda or anywhere in Africa are digital savvy, let alone computer literate beyond their personal interest and parental encouragement of their children to study hard.

But the smart-class model, expected to be established in every Rwandan school by 2020, promises more than digital foundation. Along with educational content development accessible in all digital platforms, it marks the beginning of personalised way of learning.

As the Microsoft regional manager overseeing the project explained in an interview, the upcoming operationalisation of the smart concept will create a space where you have devices, internet, new digital content, a modern curriculum, e-books, and new ways of assessing students.

All of these things combined, he observed, create new immersive ways of learning and teaching.

While I hold no brief for the programme, it is clear the OLCP ideal has always remained. Only that it had to metamorphose.